Oct 20, 2005

The essence of Leadership

Marcus Buckingham ex-Gallup consultant, in his new book distills the essence of leadership. Some excerpts:

There's something unique and different that makes a leader, and it's not about creativity or courage or integrity. As important as they are, you can have those attributes and still fail to be a great leader. A leader's job is to rally people toward a better future. Leaders can't help but change the present, because the present isn't good enough. They succeed only when they find a way to make people excited by and confident in what comes next.

The future is more real than the present; it compels them to act. Turn Anxiety into Confidence For a leader, the challenge is that in every society ever studied, people fear the future. The future is unstable, unknown, and therefore potentially dangerous. So in order to succeed, leaders must engage our fear of the unknown and turn it into spiritedness. By far the most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear -- to define the future in such vivid terms that we can see where we are headed. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety, and therefore clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.

Leaders can be wrong. They can't be confusing. If we are going to follow you into the future, we need to know precisely whom we are trying to please. It's a scary thing to please all of the people all of the time. So to calm our fear, we need you to narrow our focus. Tell us who will be judging our success. When you do this with clarity, you give us confidence -- confidence in our judgment, in our decisions, and ultimately in our ability to know where to look to determine if we have fulfilled our mission.

From a leadership standpoint, a score is actionable and unambiguous. That clarity is lost if you end up looking at 15 different metrics. It's a terrible leadership failure to tell your employees that all of these measurements are important. When followers are presented with numerous scores, they get confused. The job of a leader is to say, "Of all the things we measure, this is the most important."

Of course, a leader must take action -- action leads to impact. But actions also possess a separate, equally powerful quality. Actions are unambiguous. If you, the leader, can highlight a few carefully selected actions, then your followers will no longer have to infer the future from theoretical pronouncements about "core values" or your "mission statement." We will simply look to see what actions you take and found our faith and confidence on these. But be aware that we respond best to two types of action: symbolic action and systemic action. Symbolic action is just that -- a representation of what the future can look like. Symbolic action grabs our attention; it gives us something new and vivid on which to focus.

For a leader, it's important to disrupt routines. Systemic action changes behavior. It makes people realize that the world is going to be different because they're doing different things. The future becomes clearer, and out of that clarity comes confidence. Effective leaders don't have to be passionate or charming or brilliant. What they must be is clear -- clarity is the essence of great leadership. Show us clearly who we should seek to serve, show us where our core strength lies, show us which score we should focus on and which actions we must take, and we will reward you by working our hearts out to make our better future come true.